By Colin MacGillivray
MEMBER for Euroa Steph Ryan has joined a community call for new solutions to power problems plaguing the town of Pyalong.
Pyalong residents have been frustrated for years by frequent power outages, some lasting only a few minutes and others lasting hours or even days.
The town was left without power for four days following the severe storms of June 9 and 10, but Pyalong resident Father Paul Walliker said the problem had existed for far longer.
Fr Walliker has documented more than 20 outages this year, including outages of four, six and 12 hours in October.
He said Pyalong had experienced frequent outages since he and his wife Heather had lived in the town, and the area’s electrical network needed to be upgraded.
Fr Walliker said telecommunications were often compromised when the power failed, which, with he and Ms Walliker both living with chronic health conditions, could place the couple in a dangerous position.
“We’re life support customers, which theoretically means if the power goes out, we’re supposed to be a priority to return. In practice it means nothing,” he said.
Fr Walliker contacted Ms Ryan about the issue when she was elected Member for Euroa in 2016.
Ms Ryan raised the issue with Energy, Environment and Climate Change Minister Lily D’Ambrosio at the time, and received a response stating electricity distributor Powercor had earmarked Pyalong’s feeder line for ‘significant investment’ in 2017.
Fr Walliker said whatever upgrades had been undertaken, they had not improved the situation.
“The biggest problem is that the power for this area comes from … Woodend North where the distributor is, and it goes out at the drop of a hat. As a consequence it starts to take out everything from Romsey up,” he said.
“They can get it restored to Romsey, but then there’s some sort of distributor in the area of Goldie, and that’s where it goes down next. That takes down Lancefield and Pyalong, and it can take forever for them to sort out.”
Fr Walliker said he believed it would be simple to improve Pyalong’s power woes.
“If you go up the highway and West Road [north of Pyalong], that’s where the power comes down from Heathcote and Tooborac.
“I know a guy who lives on West Road who laughs when he sees that Pyalong is out, because he’s on a different feeder.
“As the crow flies it’s probably about 2.5 kilometres at most to bring [the feeder line] into town here. I just can’t see that it’s going to bust Powercor to do that.”
Fr Walliker said he and Ms Walliker had installed solar panels, batteries and a generator for emergency back-up, but were unable to run everything off the emergency system.
Ms Ryan said with bushfire season approaching, reliable power and telecommunications would be vital to communities like Pyalong.
“When the phone tower goes out because the backup battery expires, and most people have done away with landlines now and are only operating off the internet,” she said.
“The communication is then totally out, and if you couple that with a heat wave or high fire danger, which is often what causes the network to go out, it can become very dangerous.
“That’s when people need power the most to be able to access phones, cooling and pumps for water.”
Ms Ryan said local, state and federal governments needed to rethink how to address the power needs of small rural communities, while working with an outdated system.
“Powercor is responsible for maintaining the network, but the state has had several programs around neighbourhood batteries, which I think should be targeted towards helping smaller communities become more resilient,” she said.
“That funding hasn’t, from what I can see, yet gone to communities where they’re facing power problems because they’re at the end of the network.
“I think we should be prioritising investment for communities like Pyalong to make them more resilient.”
A Powercor spokesperson said the June storms had caused significant damage to the network, exacerbating problems in the region.
“In the weeks ahead, specialist crews will be conducting an additional inspection of the powerline that feeds Pyalong with the aim to reduce the risk of future outages,” he said.
“The patrols will look at the line, poles and other infrastructure as well as allow crews to view and identify trees that may pose a risk of falling during extreme weather.
“The inspections will inform what activities may need to be conducted to improve reliability and are in addition to Powercor’s annual inspection and maintenance program.”
Fr Walliker said a solution needed to be found quickly for the sake of the town.
“There’s 796 households and businesses that are affected when the power goes out,” he said.
“The poor publican … lost thousands of dollars’ worth of stock during that four-day outage. Who is going to invest in a business here when you can’t have power?
“I love living here. I wouldn’t live anywhere else. But our concern is that this community should be treated the same as any other community.”